Dec. 2, 1960: The Curtain Rises on a Brand New Publication

Performers in the business for a long time tell me that they grew up on Back Stage. Well, I really grew up on Back Stage. I was in elementary school when my dad brought home the very first copy of the newspaper on Dec. 2, 1960, and it's been in my household ever since. After all, it was my dad, Ira Eaker, and his partner, Allen Zwerdling, who began it all 40 years ago.

Going back to mid-October 1960, Ira and Allen had decided to finally call it quits at another theatre trade publication where they had worked together for almost 12 years-- my dad as advertising sales director and Allen as the editor. There was no plan to start up another publication at this point; both my dad and Allen were determined to look for positions at some of the other theatre trade publications that were around.

While waiting to hear from the industry people they interviewed with, the two kicked around the idea of producing an eight-page section filled with casting and theatre news for the Village Voice, then a fledgling but successful tabloid. Their idea was to call the section the "Broadway Voice." But when the Village Voice turned them down, they decided that, perhaps, they could get their own publication off the ground. They were getting a lot of encouragement from friends in the industry about doing so, and the idea was challenging.

They put in $500 each, sublet a small (9' x 12') furnished office on West 46th Street, installed two telephone lines, and hired a lawyer to incorporate them. They then sent out a mailing stating that they were no longer involved with their former association and were now pursuing a new publishing venture. A second mailing made a pitch for charter subscribers, offering each of them a three- or four-line listing on the back page of the issue, and a free subscription to what they decided to name the paper-- Back Stage. The idea for the name came from Allen's brother-in-law; they all liked it because it had the connotation of being "inside the business."

This all took place around the first week of November, 1960. Three weeks later (mind you, a mere six weeks from the time they left their other jobs), the first issue of Back Stage appeared on the newsstands, selling at 25 cents per copy, and subheaded "A New Complete Service Weekly for the Entertainment Industry." The front cover of the 16-page edition covered news of the plans for the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and a new "theatre in the park." Columns, casting news, and lists of Broadway shows filled out the rest of the editorial.

Since it was only Ira and Allen putting the paper together, Allen's philosophy was to get people to write columns-- people representing all facets of the industry-- which he succeeded in doing over the next few weeks. Phyllis Diller wrote "The Comedy Field," while Candy Jones penned "Girl Talk for Models." There was "Back Stage in Dance" by Dorothy Russell, plus "Back Stage at Actors' Equity" and "Back Stage at the Latin Quarter." Our own, and present-day, dance editor, Jennie Schulman, wrote "Dance Events." Roz Starr reported on celebrities in "Starr's News Notes."

Film projects due to shoot in New York were listed in their various stages of production. Casting information was sought after and reported under the heading of "Back Stage on Broadway" and "Back Stage Off-Broadway," along with a separate "Calendar of Chorus Calls." A "Back Stage Report Card" rated Broadway show openings from 0 ("inexcusable") through 100 ("smash").

On the day the first issue hit the streets, so did eight inches of snow, and for each Thursday for the four weeks in December of 1960, New York had ice storms, snowstorms, and rainstorms that left the streets deserted, with most of the copies of Back Stage unsold at the newsstands. Ira, as good a salesman as he was, sold ad space to drama schools, photographers, and telephone answering services, but because hardly anyone was buying the paper, the response to the ads was, as my dad noted, underwhelming!

In order to pacify the advertisers and get them to pay their bills, Ira made "twofer" deals, and ran "make-goods" to keep their ads running in the paper. The printer was screaming to have his bills paid up, but he had to be stalled until Ira and Allen were able to get the cash flow going.

By September of 1960, there were even more columnists added to the Back Stage list of "stringers." "ANTA News Notes" was a prominent feature. There was also an "Investor's Report" by L. K. Rose, a "Writers Report" by Martha Monigle, "Back Stage Off Broadway" by Scotti D'Arcy, "Launching New Playwrights" by Claire Leonard, "Back Stage at the Copacabana" by Francesca Fontaine, "All That's Jazz" by Joyce Ackers, and "Making Rounds" by Jane Chambers. Some of the columns were eventually dropped, but replaced by new writers with new ideas.

Despite all of Ira and Allen's efforts, Back Stage was still suffering from growing pains. Then, in 1962, there was a citywide newspaper strike, and the pair took advantage of it to help themselves out of their debts. With a void of entertainment news in the city, they came up with the idea of publishing a weekly guide for the general public, with listings of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, films, television programs, and restaurants that the dailies usually carried. Of course, there were advertisements, and Ira was quite successful in selling enough contracts to initially cover the cost of the very first issue.

The idea became a reality in less than two weeks. Ira and Allen would be at the printing plant late Wednesday night putting Back Stage "to bed," then back the following night with Amusement Guide. An 80-hour workweek was par. They also were able to lure some of the top newspaper writers to contribute to the guide: Bob Dana, restaurant reviewer for The World-Telegram-Sun, Martin Burden (who worked with Earl Wilson), Maurice Zolotow of The New York Times, and Sid Pearlman, World-Telegram ad man, among others.

The guide reached a circulation of 60,000 in just a few short weeks and was the only game in town-- until other publications started hitting the stands.

The strike lasted three months, and when the dailies resumed publishing, Ira and Allen dropped Amusement Guide. But the profits they made went right back into Back Stage, enabling the show to go on.

From the beginning, Back Stage was truly a two-person operation. Allen wrote and edited stories, went after the casting information, reviewed plays, and dummied up the editorial-- while Ira sold ads, wrote all the promo copy, and was responsible for all the ad production. The two also did everything else involved in getting out a weekly paper. They had a distributor, but when a newsstand was missed or needed more copies, Ira and Allen would have to keep extra copies in their cars and distribute them themselves.

I still remember my father coming home very, very late on Wednesday nights. That was press night, and he and Allen would stay at the printing plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sometimes until three or four o'clock in the morning, proofreading, adjusting the layouts, and overseeing the printing right up to final press time. (This was when linotype was used-- a far cry from the modern computer technology used today.) As tired as my dad was when he got home, I had a feeling, even then, that he loved every minute of it.

And Allen must have loved it, too. The office space on West 46th Street was small, and during the summer, it would get very hot, since there was no air-conditioning. In shorts and T-shirt, Allen would move his typewriter into the hallway by the elevator, where it was a lot cooler, and write his stories there.

By January 1964, the look and emphasis of the paper had already shifted. The Back Stage logo had changed, and the banner story now dealt with advertising agencies and TV commercial production companies. The TV commercial industry was blossoming in New York, and was a greater source of advertising revenue for Back Stage than the theatre industry. As the N.Y. commercial industry boomed, Back Stage boomed right along with it and the paper became the source for these young companies and directors to advertise their service. The 16-page trade now sold for 35 cents per copy. Theatre-related stories were still on the front page, but most of the theatre columns and casting news began halfway through the issue. Two years previous to this time, Charlotte Harmon had joined Ira and Allen as associate editor and was responsible for gathering the audition information under "Casting Bits," "Chorus Calls," and "Summer Stock Casting," which all ran free of charge. She also wrote the theatre section banner story-- whenever there was room for one. There was an "Equity Library Theatre" column by Debbie Rose, "The World of Dance" was penned by Harold Garton, and a special "Health for Actors" was written by J. I. Rodale, founder and publisher of Prevention Magazine. The Jan. 3 issue ran a fairly lengthy list of New York TV casting directors.

The number of advertisers was growing. Some of the schools and actors' services advertising then (and many still advertise today) included Stella Adler, HB Studios, Gene Frankel, Sonia Moore, Maurice Finnell, and Gordon Marra's Talent Exchange. My father was meticulous with his advertising clients and would pay as much attention to his one column inch clients as he would to any of his other advertisers. He loved the thrill of selling space and then creatively composing the copy and layout for the ad. Or the thrill of seeing an ad in another publication and convincing the person or company that Back Stage was the perfect placement for them. I can boastfully say that he succeeded almost every time.

Four years later, Jan. 12, 1968: the entire paper averaged 24 pages a week. The "Legitimate Theatre Section," as the section was referred to, began on page 15, so there were 10 pages "in the back of the paper" that dealt with theatre news and casting information.

"Broadway Still Hoping: Great Expectations for 1968" read the banner headline regarding all the flops earlier in the season ("Henry Sweet, Henry," "Brief Lives," "How Now, Dow Jones") and the hopeful new hits ("The Happy Time," "Here's Where I Belong," "Plaza Suite," "The Price," and "Weekend"). Interesting how often that headline is used; only the names of the shows seem to change from year to year.

More and more casting notices were listed, and many of them were slugged "ADVT," which meant that we were now charging for casting information, with the exception of union calls, which we continued to place at no charge. It was actually Allen's idea to put a fee on the audition items; it filtered out the con artists, who no longer would place a notice if they had to pay for it.

"Capsule Reviews" had replaced the "Back Stage Report Card," and two- to three-paragraph reviews were being written on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway productions by Charlotte Harmon, Jennie Schulman, Ed Dudowicz, David Loffert, Dr. Roland Parker, George L. George, and others.

Jan. 8, 1971: the "Legitimate Theatre Section" was still only 10 pages of the average 24-pages-per-week paper. The legit section's banner story, placed on the back page (only when the back page wasn't sold as an ad), read "Relief for B'way? Theatre League, Unions Compro-mise," and told about how the League of New York Theatres (as it was then called) would be instituting a new plan designed to lower ticket prices. (I guess that plan fizzled out.)

Actors' Equity was now holding required interviews for shows, designed to allow its members to be seen by producers and directors.

Two years later, January of 1973, and the theatre section still averaged 10 pages weekly, though Back Stage had grown to 28 pages. Jay Barney was writing a column on "Equity Dinner Theatres," and Harry Linton had begun his "Actors & Income Tax" weekly (during tax season) column. Tom Tolnay joined Ira and Allen as editor-in-chief, along with other newcomers in the advertising department, including Steve Elish, Back Stage's present-day publisher, who was then hired by my dad as assistant to the publisher. Even with an expanded staff, Ira and Allen still ran a very hands-on operation, involved in every aspect, scrutinizing all the pages before they went to the printer on Wednesday mornings.

In late 1974, Back Stage opened a West Coast office and eventually was represented in Chicago, New England, and Florida as TV commercial production began to grow in those areas. And, as the commercial section of the paper grew larger, so did the theatre section.

I came on the scene as editor on Jan. 3, 1977, replacing Charlotte Harmon, who had decided to leave her position after 15 years. By this time, Back Stage had moved its offices to larger spaces on the seventh floor in the Actors' Equity Building. My job was to take and type up all the casting notices (either sent to us or brought in), write reviews, update lists, and write an occasional feature story (when there was space for one). Since the theatre section of the paper was only 10 to 14 pages, there wasn't room for much else. So, armed with a manual typewriter, some carbon paper, my part-time assistant Julie Cesari, and my own office (!), the curtain rose on my premiere year.

I had inherited a few columnists (Jay Barney and Harry Linton) and a theatre and dance reviewer (Jennie Schulman), but after a short while, I saw the need to expand the scope of the "Legitimate Theatre Section" and focus on more feature stories, articles, and reviews. With the number of advertisers increasing and more casting notices running, we certainly warranted it.

By establishing contacts with all the performing unions, I eventually got many of them to write a regular column for us (just as they did for a period in the 1960s). We had "SAG Views," "AFTRA News," "AGVA News," and a column from the Television Academy running at least every other week.

More and more freelance reviewers and feature writers began contributing to Back Stage, so that more of the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway arena was being covered, as well as a broader range of issues and topics.

By 1980, Back Stage had a facelift and started sporting the familiar logo that's on the front page today. We also moved into our offices at 330 W. 42nd St., giving us even more space and a beautiful view of the Hudson River.

The once titled "Legitimate Theatre Section" was now called "Theatre and Talent Casting" and featured Jay Barney's "Equity Theatre News," as well as casting items under headlines that included "Stage," "Chorus Calls," and "Club Talent." Jennie Schulman began her "Dance Diary" column, and we began an "OOBA News" column, written by then Off-Off-Broadway Alliance (now A.R.T./NY) Executive Director Ellen Rudolph. My roundup of films shooting in New York was now a monthly feature, offering information to performers, tech, and suppliers.

Toward the end of the year, we were able to run a feature story and hard news articles on the first page of the section. The next five years saw the theatre section really take off. Our staff of freelance writers grew; more specialized columns were added to the paper, including Fred Silver's "Audition Doctor"; Jill Charles' column on regional theatres; John Allen's non-Equity summer stock column; Jack Poggi's "Monologue Shop"; and Michael Hofferber's "Stage West," our first regular column covering theatre activity outside the New York area. Bob Harrington's "Bistro Bits" column recognized the need to cover New York's cabaret scene in depth, and got great response from the cabaret community.

Our regularly running features, news stories, interview columns, and reviews provided opportunities and valuable information for the performer. Many features became annual events (our "Spotlight" issues) such as those on dance, kids in the performing arts, rehearsal rooms, and temporary employment services. Our readers depended on Back Stage as the source for reliable information.

One of the biggest changes came on Jan. 20, 1984, when the theatre section "broke off" from the main section of Back Stage (which carried news of the TV commercial production industry), becoming a separate insert in the paper. It was placed "upside down," so readers would easily find it and be able to pull it out. (I hate to say it, but if you walked up Eighth or Ninth avenues, late Wednesday nights or early Thursday mornings, you'd find the "outer shell" of Back Stage in the trashcans-most performers only wanted the theatre section.)

We were finally on our own, with an average of 40-44 pages to design and lay out all our editorial copy! Gary Prouse, a former Back Stage production manager turned ad agency creative director, designed the section so that it was not only filled with good information, but created a visual impact.

December 1985 marked Back Stage's silver anniversary, and to celebrate, Ira and Allen hosted a huge extravaganza where 1,400 industry notables, along with Back Stage advertisers and staff, gathered to celebrate the 25-year-old trade paper's achievements. Back Stage also published a 300-page 25th anniversary issue. It was the highpoint in Ira and Allen's careers.

Perhaps it was the success of the anniversary issue and the publicity Back Stage garnered from its gala event that prompted a number of outside interests to look at the growing and full-of-potential trade weekly as an investment opportunity.

Ira and Allen received a number of offers from various organizations that were interested in buying the publication. The pair had listened to offers before this time, but now they were listening a little more seriously. Within the year, they decided to cash in their chips, and accepted an offer from Billboard Publications Inc. (BPI), thus ending their 26-year relationship. Allen looked forward to his retirement. But Ira, not quite ready to leave his position, worked it out so he could stay a bit longer, through June 1989. It would be the first time for me working without my dad around.

We were now part of a large corporate entity (there were many publications under the BPI banner), but being part of a corporate entity had its advantages. We were able to move in directions we couldn't very easily before.

One of the biggest changes took place on Independence Day, 1990 (the July 6 issue), when Back Stage became "independent" from the commercial section of the paper, selling separately on the newsstands as Back Stage, the Performing Arts Weekly. (The commercial section took on a new name, Back Stage Shoot, eventually shortened to Shoot.)

I was now editor of an entire paper, no longer the editor of a section of an overall publication. Steve Elish, who had been with my dad as assistant to the publisher, then as associate publisher/advertising director, was named publisher of Back Stage.

The additional number of pages each week gave me the opportunity to increase our coverage of the performing arts industry. We added new monthly features, increased our regional coverage, and were able to run already established columns and features on a more regular basis.

All these changes were just an indication of a lot more things about to happen.

This start-up year for the "new" Back Stage saw the very first formal presentation of the annual Bistro Awards, hosted by then "Bistro Bits" columnist, Bob Harrington.

It was the year that we started thinking seriously about establishing ourselves on the West Coast. Ira and Allen had always talked about it. There had been a West Coast section covering the L.A. commercial production industry, but not the performing arts scene.

During the summer of 1990, I went out to the Coast to meet with theatre producers, casting directors, actors, and heads of the Western regional office of Equity and Screen Actors Guild, in order to get feedback on the Back Stage West concept. Everyone was highly receptive; in fact, most urged us to come out as soon as possible in order to fill the gap in the industry out there.

It took a couple more trips, both by me and by publisher Steve Elish, and finally, July 1993 saw a Back Stage West section as part of the national Back Stage issue. Seven months later, Back Stage West emerged as its own publication, with Rob Kendt as editor.

In the meantime, Back Stage had moved into BPI's offices at 1515 Broadway. Being right in the heart of Broadway seemed to be the perfect setting for us.

The next couple of years were highlighted by two acquisitions and a launch. In July of 1996, Back Stage purchased Ross Reports, a dependable monthly guide to agents and casting directors, along with a number of their other publications. The Back Stage website was launched the following year (www.backstage. com), and then, in 1998, Back Stage purchased Drama-Logue, Back Stage West's only competition. The acquisition gave Back Stage West the foothold it needed to firmly establish itself in the industry.

Where do I see Back Stage heading over the next 10 years?

With Back Stage and Back Stage West joining forces on a number of issues, and with the Back Stage website attracting readers from all over the country, it's possible that aspiring performers from Sheboygan to Kankakee will acknowledge someday that they, too, grew up reading Back Stage.